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Wednesday, November 2,2011

Coming-of-old-age story

Jim Harrison shares poetry and mystery

by Bill Castanier

A conversation with Jim Harrison is like opening a box of
Cracker Jacks. You get to nibble through the delightful crisp kernels
knowing a prize awaits: You just won’t know what it is until you get
there. His books always hold similar delights, and both his newest
novel, “The Great Leader,” and his poetry collection, “Songs of
Unreason,” are super-sized and filled with prizes where you least
expect them. 


About this time each year Harrison, 73,  comes
forth with a book or two, one fiction and a book of poetry. This year,
both books are dripping with rich passages about Michigan, his former
home, until he skedaddled to Montana and Arizona in corpus only. Much
of his heart is still in Michigan. The back of the poetry book’s jacket
begins with this excerpt from a poem: “In the Upper Peninsula of
Michigan and the mountains of the Mexican border I’ve followed the call
of birds.” 


Another poem, a haunting piece of verse about his sister,
Judith, killed by a drunk driver in 1962, will leave you with a tiny
tear. In part:  “You were
buried at nineteen in wood with Daddy. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to
learn the language of the dead.” A handful of other poems salute the
dogs of his life and a poem, “Anniversary,” is a present to his wife,
Linda, on their 50th wedding anniversary.


You shouldn’t get the idea his book is maudlin in any
way. Harrison’s wit, which draws on his experiences and those of his
friends, can be found throughout the nearly 70 poems. In “Corruption”
he writes: “I know a man, happily married who bought a girl a hundred
dollar pair of panties. I was stunned. For this price I buy a whole
lamb each fall.” I’ll save the punchline for the reader.


It goes without saying that an inordinate number of poems
touch on what Harrison calls his “lifetime obsession with water.”
Harrison blames his uncle for buying a cabin on the lake, in which “the
sound of water could be heard ‘round the clock.”


 In his most
recent novel, “The Great Leader,” Harrison places his protagonist,
retired state police detective Sunderson in Marquette where, besides
fishing the streams and ponds, Lake Superior is his siren call.


Although publicity has called the book a noirish mystery,
it is much more a coming-of-age tale: old age, in this case. Sunderson
has lost his dog and lost his marriage, but is able to find an endless
supply of whisky to get him through the nights. He’s afloat, but barely
treading water.


Not to worry — readers soon learn he hasn’t lost his sexual drive. His neighbor, Mona,  a
16-year-old girl, becomes a willing target for Sunderson’s
window-peeking. It’s clear early on that his critics, who claim his
writing is sexist and that he relies on lust and libido too much, won’t
be disappointed.


The author, with his usual frankness, addresses his critics: “I don’t give a fuck. I’m a writer.”


Harrison said he decided to write the book for a lot or
reasons, but most important, he said, he was “tired of melancholy” and
he “had never written about trashy culture.” He also wanted to explore
cults that prey on young girls, the appropriation of the American
Indian culture (which he has written about many times and has a
spiritual respect for) and, as he describes it, the “two- or three-year
hole — a bomb crater” that divorce leaves within you. He accomplishes
all these goals with vigor in “The Great Leader.”


He said he has run across cults in the Southwest and Leelanau County that are “sicker than horse turds.”


Sunderson, with the aid of his next-door neighbor, begins
to investigate a cult, which leads him to Arizona. After Sunderson is
seriously injured, revenge becomes the end goal.


The plotline has drawn comparison to the works of Cormac
McCarthy. Harrison thinks the comparison strange and reminds readers
that McCarthy was accused of borrowing from Harrison’s “Revenge” in “No
Country for Old Men.”


Harrison says revenge and Mexico are always linked. “Any
white guy who goes to Mexico —well, he’s in for it,” recalling a time
when a drug lord in Mexico gave him his business card with instructions
to show it to anyone who gave him trouble: “The drug lord told me they
will run off pissing down their legs.”


He said his wife has taken the card away from him. “It was for the better.”


Harrison said he also wanted to explore in the book what
happens when, as a homicide detective, “you look through shit-stained
glass. It’s a very rough life. Many detectives become excitement
junkies.”


In “The Great Leader” Harrison offers a lot of lessons
for those growing old and for younger ones watching. In his book of
poetry he describes his thinking as “atavistic, primitive and
totemistic.” 


Harrison, who turns 74 next month, is not slowing down.
His excitement comes from writing, and he’s just finished another
installment of his famous “Brown Dog” novellas, the latest of which
finds Brown Dog back home in the U.P. 


Harrison also spent a week earlier this year in Leelanau,
meeting with his good friend Mario Batali, the celebrity chef. He says
they are collaborating on a book that will explore what “we find most
real in American food.” Harrison once wrote a monthly column for
Esquire magazine on food and cooking; they are collected in “The Raw
and the Cook.”


After great French wine, which is Harrison’s drink of
choice (he thinks every state has a right to bad wine), food is his
passion. His describes a particular delight, a dish served by one of
his French friends: a stew made of 50 baby pig snouts, all “staring at
you from the top of a steaming pot.”


That’s almost as good as the column he wrote for Esquire
on how to make head cheese, which begins, “Take one pig’s head, boil
for 24 hours.” 


In many ways the recipe is a description of his writing
style, which is both complex and simple, but always boiling when it
hits the page.

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